Who is the modern auto shopper, and how do they decide what car to buy? 

On the surface, this is a bad question.  At this moment, one “modern auto shopper” may be running her fingertips down the side of a Porsche in a glitzy showroom while her counterpart across town is negotiating price on a deeply used minivan. Differences between lifestyle groups, local economics, and even factors like weather can give you very different types of people and car buying scenarios. 

There is, however, a modern auto shopper, and the best way to get to know him or her is to focus on the common factor that unites us all in the car buyer’s journey – technology.  

Ninety-six percent of Americans own a mobile device, and eighty-one percent of Americans use the internet in some shape or form. The people who do not use mobile devices or the internet, or barely use these technologies, still matter, but the number of non-adopters out there shrinks more and more every year. Our Porsche shopper and minivan buyer may come from different demographic groups, have wildly different income levels, and have lifestyles that do not resemble each other in any way; but chances are that both were led to their respective dealerships by the internet. Maybe one of them went no further than a voice search for the car dealership’s address, while the other devoted hours to online research, but the internet is the most likely common denominator. 

The internet is as vital to getting customers to your lot as the road they drove in on. This isn’t too bold of a statement. Thirty years ago you could have made the same claim about billboards, TV and radio spots, and ads in the Sunday paper. Now you need a buttoned down dealership digital marketing strategy. 

So, who is this modern auto shopper? Or, if you prefer, what similar things do most car buyers do to find their next car? To answer this, let’s use recent Google research on how digital drives auto sales as a guide. Google’s findings will help us understand what the vast majority of auto shoppers are doing online. Once we pinpoint some common characteristics we’ll know our mysterious modern auto shopper a whole lot better. 


Common characteristic 1: Auto shoppers are open to influence. 

The author of this piece grew up in rural Missouri and remembers a lot of Ford versus Chevy jokes going around. These jokes were pretty interchangeable. If you like Chevys a Ford vehicle would be the butt of the joke, and if you were a Ford fan the punchline would cut Chevy down to size. These jokes may not be around forever though, because seventy-two percent of car buyers use the internet to cross-shop and explore different brands. 

What might explain this? A reasonable explanation is that the internet has made research so fast and easy that car buyers don’t have to bet as heavily on brand reputation. Back in the days when there were only a handful of ways to read up on car makes and models, it made a lot of sense to speculate on whether a Ford or a Chevy is a “better” investment overall. The modern car buyer, however, has access to endless websites, videos, and online reviews that allow him or her to weigh more vehicle-specific factors. 


Common characteristic 2: Auto shoppers do their research. 

Google found that the modern auto shopper hits an average of 24 touchpoints – watching a TV ad, following a brand on social media, finding a local dealer, etc. – in the course of the car buyer’s journey. While the most common touchpoints are in-person ones like test drives and dealership visits, the modern car buyer gets most of his or her information online. 

Where are modern auto shoppers going to get their information? According to the Google study we’re using here are the top three: 

  • Eighty-three percent are visiting dealership sites. 

  • Eighty-one percent are visiting manufacturer sites. 

  • Seventy-seven percent are using search engines. 

So you should get your dealership website on point and you’ll be set, right? Not so fast. Google found that other digital sources like social media, customer review sites, and newspaper sites are showing faster year-over-year growth than the top three. In essence, the modern auto shopper is going anywhere and everywhere they can find useful information. 


Common characteristic 3: Auto shoppers are using their mobile devices. 

Google reports that modern auto shoppers are using their mobile devices. The statistic from 2013 was that thirty-five percent of buyers are researching on their phones. By 2015, this number reached fifty-one percent and is even higher now. 

Mobile users are doing many of the same things they might do on a laptop or desktop, with some important differences. Searches for “pictures of [vehicle brand x]” has increased thirty-seven percent year over year, with eighty percent of these searches taking place on mobile (Google speculates that searching for car images is inspired by the vehicles that shoppers see while out and about).   

Car buyers are also bringing their phones on the lot. For buyers who are still weighing their options the most common mobile activity is reading descriptions and reviews, followed by calling someone to get their opinion. For buyers who are about to make a purchase the most common mobile activities are price checking, looking up dealer hours and locations (presumably for a competing dealership), and searching for deals and special offers. 


Common characteristic 4: Auto shoppers are using video for brand discovery and consideration. 

This finding comes up repeatedly in the research. We cover video in greater depth here, here, and here, so let’s just list a few of the more tantalizing findings Google has come out with. 

The modern auto shopper is using video. 


Common characteristic 5: Auto shoppers care about dealer interaction and post-purchase experiences. 

While the modern auto shopper is open to new makes and models of car the experience at their local dealership still counts for a lot, and it influences future buying decisions. Google finds that: 

  • Sixty-two percent of car buyers report that the level of customer service they received at a dealership will influence their next buying decision. 

  • Fifty-two percent of car buyers report that communication with the dealership in regard to the vehicle they already own will influence their next buying decision. 

  • Fifty-one percent of car buyers report that dealer location will influence their next buying decision. 

  • Forty-eight percent of car buyers report that the ease of scheduling maintenance will influence their next buying decision. 

You don’t see the same outrageous statistical values that accompany some of the other findings here, but bear in mind that dealership-based factors count for about as much as biggies like the price of gas (66%) and the cost of maintenance (61%). For dealerships, these are opportunities to be won or lost. 

These findings are also relevant to technology because dealership digital marketing tools like live chat, email, and others can give the customer experience a considerable boost. 


Remember, the modern auto shopper is your friend. 

There are a lot of articles out there about how technology is destroying this or that industry, how millennials and Gen Z shoppers are driving certain types of businesses in the ground, and how the end is nigh in general. This is not one of those articles. 

Every dealership out there has what it takes to connect with the modern auto shopper. The auto shopper journey is complex. It may require doing some things that weren’t necessary or even possible ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, but none of it is daunting as it might sound.  

Some will even find that the modern auto shopper can take their dealerships to places they never thought possible. This sounds like a feel-good slogan but it’s not – technological changes always create opportunities for those who know how to seize them. 


Contact us to find out more about our complete automotive marketing solutions. 


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